(A periodic series on poverty in the Gunnison Valley)
Give me shelter
Short term or long, housing is a
pressing need in the valley
Booming summers. Long, frigid winters. A high cost-of-living coupled with meager, service-industry wages. These are the elements that make life challenging for many in Gunnison County. An ongoing concern within this mix is housing, both its availability—or lack thereof—and cost.
“Affordable housing becomes more of an issue when the economy begins to improve,” says Gunnison County Housing Authority executive director Karl Fulmer. This, he explains, is because at the same time business picks up and employers need more workers, the real estate market also improves, raising the cost of housing and reducing the numbers of homes for rent or sale. As the opportunity to land a job and make more money is welcome, some people find it impossible to find a place to live near where they work. The lack of housing is so acute in Crested Butte this summer that many seasonal workers are camping in the nearby forest.
“Much of the focus of the Housing Authority prior to 2013 was on the construction of affordable ownership units. Unfortunately, home ownership is only one part of the housing puzzle. Our data shows a serious demand for affordable rental units in the North Valley market. This demand is so significant it’s beginning to put pressure on rentals in the Gunnison area. Those living in campgrounds might qualify for housing at a property like Caddis Flats,” says Fulmer. Anthracite Place, is the affordable housing project currently being planned for construction in Crested Butte.
“Understand,” says Fulmer, “ Anthracite Place is designated as ‘workforce housing.’ This means that rents are set and applicants for units at the property must have adequate income, rental references and credit standing to qualify to rent at the property.
“If someone works in the North Valley and meets the criteria for renting at Anthracite Place they certainly could live at the property. Our market study for the project showed approximately 200 households that would be in-demand of the 30 rental units to be built in Crested Butte,” Fulmer continues. “The trend toward converting long-term rentals to vacation units has also whittled away the housing supply.”
While seasonal workforce housing needs are acute, there is also the ongoing need among the North Valley’s long-term service workforce. “This workforce generally makes $20,000 to 35,000 per year and is the backbone of our economy,” says Fulmer. “Much of this housing stock must take the form of quality, stable rental housing.”
While the crunch for housing in Crested Butte is acute, Gunnison will likely feel a growing pressure to provide adequate, affordable housing, too.
“While many of the dedicated rental units for our valley’s lower-income workers are located in Gunnison, the presence of the university and its potentially expanding student population certainly affects, and will affect, housing needs in the future. The city of Gunnison’s planning staff have approached the Housing Authority to assist with composing housing-related policies for Gunnison,” says Fulmer.
Some of what qualifies as affordable to the average worker in Gunnison is often less expensive for a reason. It’s drafty and leaks—bad roof, poor insulation, cracked windows and old galvanized pipes. “Unfortunately, we hear stories of the heating bills for some of these units being higher than the actual rents charged,” says Fulmer. “Most of what we’d call substandard housing takes the form of older dwellings that do not come close to meeting modern efficiency standards,” he says.
The GCHA is ironing out an agreement with Delta County’s Housing Authority (DCHA) to access funds earmarked by the state for modernization and the rehabilitation of homes for low-income residents. “These funds are administered for Gunnison County out of the Delta County Housing Authority’s office,” says Fulmer.
“Technically, it’s not available until we get that agreement,” says DCHA’s Todd Wicklund. It’s a formality, he says, to determine roles and responsibilities in administering the program for Gunnison County. “If we sign an agreement, we’re good to go.”
Wicklund emphasizes that the Housing Rehab Program, as it’s called, is regional and community-based. The loans are low-interest, 1 to 3 percent, and eligibility is based on median income, determined by U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
For a single person, that’s $40,350. For a household of two, it’s about $46,000.
“It’s a real flexible program,” he says. Not only are interest rates low, but terms can be stretched up to 30 years to allow repayment in tiny installments.
“We run into a lot of seniors who live on $800 a month,” he says. “They can’t afford even a $25 a month payment.” In cases of extreme need, Wicklund says, payments can even be deferred. “Some of the properties we’ve seen, what they really need is a bulldozer. But you can’t do that. It’s somebody’s home.”
Homeowners who qualify for a loan can shop around among contractors to find the best price for their project. “If they’re uncomfortable doing that, I can do that for them,” says Wicklund. Getting a list of reliable contractors lined up and on board to make these needed repairs is an important component in the rehab process. “We try to go to bat for these people and keep contractors happy too,” says Wicklund.
There are also residents and visitors to the Gunnison Country who find themselves without a couch to surf.
“Gunnison County, I’m certain at times, has homeless people,” says Fulmer. “A few years ago a shelter system was set-up in Gunnison to serve a perceived homeless population during the winter season. Ultimately this system was disbanded due to a lack of use.”
The Gunnison County Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) more often helps individuals in emergency situations. Police officers occasionally come upon someone passing through, without means, with plans to sleep in the park on a night when the temperature is expected to hit minus 15 degrees. “There are other examples, too, like people passing through Gunnison and their car breaks down, or they move here for a job and live with family members or friends and the job doesn’t work out,” says director of Health and Human Services Renee Brown. “In 2013 we provided emergency housing/shelter for 12 individuals. In 2011 it was 14 and in 2012 the number was six. If someone needs longer-term services we may refer them to the shelter in Grand Junction. We also connect eligible folks with the Housing Authority to apply for Section 8 housing.” Section 8 is HUD subsidized housing for low-income residents.
During the heart of the recession, 2009-2010, says Brown, “There were a number of families who lost their jobs and were unable to meet the rent or mortgage. Assistance was provided to help them avoid eviction or foreclosure.” Funding for these circumstances comes from a grant from the Community Services Block Grant, administered by the Department of Local Affairs. “Those funds are typically $26,000 a year and help with emergency housing and shelter, transportation and medical care,” says Brown.
The quest continues to ensure safe, efficient, local housing for seasonal and long-term residents of the Gunnison Valley, a crucial component to making it in the mountains and ensuring a sustainable, thriving community.